The number of those sexually abused by their own family members runs to millions in the US, it is reported. But no one is clear on the best strategy to come out of the trauma.
Now author Stacy Haines has come out with a book, "Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma," seeing pleasurable sex and intimacy as an essential part of the healing process for victims of child abuse. Don't fear sex, that way you may be postponing your own recovery, such seems to be her message.
Sexual trauma is a deep physical, emotional, mental and spiritual betrayal. On a deep level, it has us question the inherent goodness of both ourselves and others. Because there is little social support for sexual trauma survivors to heal, or for perpetrators to be accountable — and also heal — survival and making the choice to heal is often an intensely personal, courageous act, declares Haines.
To enter healing after sexual trauma, one has to be willing to feel emotions and walk through pain that most people avoid. Grief, rage, loss of innocence, isolation and loneliness, shame and guilt are all in the emotional landscape after trauma.
One has to risk being trusting again — not as a good idea, but as a real act of vulnerability.
A survivor has to re-learn skills that trauma destroys, like recognizing what they need, allowing a full range of sensations and emotions, boundaries, consent — the ability to say yes, no and maybe — and combining intimacy with sex.
People abused tend to avoid sex so it doesn't bring up feelings about the abuse. But, Haines stresses, to heal, they have to go toward, and eventually through whatever triggers memories of the abuse — that's where freedom is.
After sexual trauma, many people continue to experience upsetting and traumatic reactions to sex, closeness, intimacy and even their own desire. Positive experiences of closeness or intimacy can leave one feeling ashamed, protective or angry.
They can understand intellectually what happened to them, but put them in a stressful situation like having sex, and their bodies continue to respond as they did during the abuse.
"A survivor might be making love with someone she cares about deeply and suddenly freeze, or become angry and start reacting to the lover as if that person were the perpetrator of long ago. That's why somatic therapy is so powerful for recovery. Survivors learn to thaw out the trauma that is stored in their body. They learn to relax and experience physical pleasure, sexual pleasure," points out the author.
Opinions on the issue are sharply polarized. On the one hand, the sexual assault survival movement, as it could be called, has historically either ignored sexual pleasure or even adult sexuality, or focused exclusively on the abuses.and ways to fight back the marauders.
At the other end of the spectrum, the sex-positive movement does not want to engage with the misuse of sex and violence or coercion, but instead concentrates on pleasure, desire, education and sexual empowerment.
Is it possible to both acknowledge sexual trauma and also call for a joyful sex life? Haines asserts it is possible indeed.
In an interview to San Francisco Chronicle, Haines, says, " Date rape, incest and molestation, being "flashed," consistent shaming about your sexuality or your body by parents, your religion, homophobia, sexism — all of this impacts our sexualities, and we can consider as sexual trauma. Sex is a normal and healthy part of being human. Having good sex — where you feel pleasure, intimacy, intensity and longing — is one of the most powerful experiences anyone can have. Not having that can be as detrimental as sex can be powerful."
When asked why she has made her book also a full-fledged sex guide, with sex techniques, advice on sex toys and more, Haines responds, saying, "I do really feel that education and information is power. Many survivors of (particularly) child sexual abuse, and even adult experiences of sexual trauma, learn about sex through abuse. This is not a source of empowering information.
"The culture at large also mostly offers us skewed information about sex. Either the objectified version in mainstream media of how we are supposed to look and act sexually, or the often shame-based education that one might get through religious education. Otherwise, most people learn about sex through their peers, who are often similarly uninformed people. There are very few people who have received a sex-positive, thorough education in human sexuality. I encourage people to discover what it is that they may like, to explore based on their own needs and desires and to self-define their sexuality — rather than having sexual trauma define it for them," Haines points out.